Mainstream India cinema — in Hindi and other languages — has been popular with the Diaspora in the United States with many films breaking all-time records. Last month, Prem Ratan Dhan Payo, had one of the
biggest openings for a Bollywood film in the US.
Then there are the classic Indian films — works of
filmmakers like Satyajit Ray — that have played
successfully. The restored prints of The Apu Trilogy
ran for over three months in New York City’s Film
Forum theater this year.
Now even museums are becoming interested in
mainstream cinema. This summer the Museum of
Moving Image in New York City played Mani
Ratnam’s trilogy of politics and love — Roja,
Bombay and Dil Se.
And the George Eastman Museum in Rochester,
New York, has just revealed that they found a treasure trove — over 700 recent commercial Indian
films in various languages and over 6,000 film
posters. The museum now boasts of the largest collection of contemporary Indian films. This includes
films like Devdas, Lagaan, Dil Se.., Dev D and
Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge as well as films in
Assamese, Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada,
Malayalam, Marathi, Punjabi, Tamil, Telugu, and
Paolo Cherchi Usai, senior curator with the museum’s Moving Image Department, discusses what
the find means to the institution’s goals.
I read that there was a multiplex in California
where the films were found. Where was it?
I think it was somewhere in Long Beach.
There was news that they were about to vacate
the premises of a former multiplex that was dedicated to Indian cinema. They needed to empty the
space immediately. There were films there and if
someone had not picked up the films, they were
going to throw them in the landfill.
But didn’t the distributors of the Indian films
want their prints back?
Apparently not, because of it is extremely expensive to return the prints. Probably the distributors
do not feel it is convenient to spend the money to
do so. Besides, after the end of the commercial run
of the film, when the film is out on DVD, there is no
incentive, because these films are dead as far as
their commercial life is concerned.
With the digital age things are changing. Now you
have DCP, which is only a digital file and a matter
of sending a hard drive. The digital age has marked
the end of the method of showing films on reels.
I work in a museum, and it is a non-profit institution that preserves the art of cinema. So, when I
heard there were prints that were about to be
destroyed, I thought I cannot let this happen.
I personally consider Indian cinema as one of the
most creative and powerful forms of cinematic
expression in the world. An average Indian film is
10 times better than a costly American production
because of the creativity involved. So, we came to
How did you learn about the prints?
There is a community of film historians and
museums, and we talk to each other all the time.
My colleagues know that I have a special interest in
Indian cinema. I got emails from more than one
person. I then sent a technician to California and
we spoke to the owners, and they said if you want
the films you better take them now. They were willing to donate them.
When did this happen?
It happened in November and December, 2014.
My colleague first hired one truck, but that was not
If you acquired the films a year ago, why did the
big enough. So, she rented two very big tractor-
trailers and, with the help of some university stu-
dents in California who were interested in the
preservation of cinema, it took a week to upload all
of this material. The owners made the official dona-
tion and the trucks came here in December.
museum just announce the new acquisition?
Because we did not even know how many films
we got. The films were just thrown around and not
in any order. We had a team that spent almost a
year identifying all the reels. Often, there was no
I didn’t want say, ‘Hey guys, we found a bunch of
films.’ I wanted to know the exact number and how
many languages are represented in this collection.
So you have a catalogue of the films now?
Catalogue is a big word. We have a checklist. Each
print will have to be individually inspected. I want
to start work with the more important films — the
jewels in the crown. Actually, all the films are jewels in the crown.
You have checked the prints and the conditions
are all good?
By and large the conditions are much better than
usual. I have acquired a few prints from India.
These prints have had a long life, having been
shown many times in urban and rural areas and
they are not in great shape. The new prints we
acquired are in much better shape.
Will these prints require some preservation work
or are they going to be stored in the museum’s
We have to work on the prints. In order to preserve a print properly it needs to be in a vault at
40ºF and 30 percent humidity. If they are met, a
film can last for hundreds of years. It can be much
more stable than digital. Which is why, if a film was
made on celluloid, museums prefer to preserve it in
that form. It will last longer.
But maintaining a vault at that condition is a very
expensive business. Then the prints have to be
inspected, cleaned, the broken perforations have to
We have a staff of about 20 people who work on
such projects. This collection will take years to be
preserved. It will take a while before we can make
We have a collection of about 28,000 films in the
museum. So, this is a fantastic addition to the collection. But things do not happen overnight in
museums. The important thing is that we have rescued these films.
For me, this was an important event for another
reason. For many years I have been trying to preserve Indian films distributed in the US. It has
always been very difficult to find places where the
films are stored. I knew that prints stay in the US;
they are put in warehouses and not returned. But I
could never figure where they are stored.
My mission has been of finding prints of Indian
films that are sleeping in some warehouses in the
US, because I want to save them all. I know they are
not just prints of Hindi films, but in Tamil,
Malayalam, Telugu, Punjabi and other languages.
Also I want the distributors to know that preserving a film is only a cultural mission. The copyright
stays with the owner. Why let these prints die in a
warehouse when they can be taken care of and then
become objects of study for the community?
I am hoping through this donation we will be able
to find more. My goal is to create a center for the
study of Indian cinema, where not only films, but
also scripts, documents related to the history of the
Indian cinema are available to everyone.
What Indian films do you have right now? Are
they just classics?
Yes classics. The first curator of our museum,
James Card, was the first person in the United
States to find a beautiful 35 mm print of the classic
Indian film Chandralekha. We have the Tamil ver-
sion, which was the first version. Then we have the
first version of Sant Tukaram. So I am not the first
in the museum to care for Indian cinema.
Recently, thanks to the efforts of a colleague in
India, Shivendra Singh, we have received a print of
a relatively new film called Magadheera by S S
Rajamouli (Eega and Bahubali).
Now, finally, we have a much larger body of
prints. So, now I can really think about the creation
of what I want to call the Center for Indian Cinema.
As a museum, besides preserving film, do you lend
prints to other museums and theaters? Can
research scholars come and see them?
People can come to our museum and study all the
prints in our collection and we loan archival prints
to other museums. The only condition is that obviously we are preserving the prints to keep them
intact, so we loan them to museums that treat the
prints like works of arts. We exchange prints with
MoMA, UCLA, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific
Film Archive, and other institutions.
It’s interesting that most of these films are big
grand commercial films, which are different from
the films that Satyajit Ray was making and what
museums usually collect.
There is a growing interest among museums and
archives for contemporary Indian cinema in all its
forms… I find in contemporary Indian cinema,
whether it is blockbuster or a more independent
production, there is quality in these films. I am
about to have a phone conversation with a colleague
at the Austrian Film Museum in Vienna; they have
recently acquired prints of films by Mani Ratnam.
Things have changed in the museum world.
Satyajit Ray is of course a giant of Indian cinema.
But our perspective is now broader. It is not just
about art movies. It is also about cultural history in
a broader sense.
Even films that don’t have any artistic pretense,
they look great. There is something about Indian
filmmakers, even when they do something for purely commercial reason, but they have this gift, they
know where to put the camera, they know how to
edit the film, the sound design, the choreography.
I profoundly admire and respect Indian filmmakers. They make art, even when they are not thinking they are making art. This is what makes Indian
cinema special. I want my institution to become a
place in the American continent where people can
really appreciate this.
I am sure your museum has a large American col-
lection, but do you also focus on other cinema from
Yes, we have a large collection of German, French,
Italian films. We also have many British films. In a
way we have the whole history of world cinema
here. Our collection goes from 1895 to the present
time. It is a very international collection.
One of the first names of the museum was
International Museum of Photography and Film.
They wanted to go beyond American film because
cinema is the most international form of art.
So, when I told our board of trustees of the new
Indian collection, there was no discussion. They
asked me if it was an important collection and I
said, ‘Yes it is.’ And they said go ahead.
We now have the largest collection of Indian films
in the American continent.
And then you received a big collection of Indian
I forgot to mention approximately 6,000 film
posters. We don’t have the exact count. They were
all rolled up. We also have a conservation department for photographs and posters. This will be a
huge undertaking. n
Prints of Lagaan, picture Dulhania Le Jayenge belo at the George Eastman M Paolo Cherchi, inset, bel Indian film posters could Center for Indian Cinema